Pilgrimage and Discovery

by Michael Colantoni

If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him – Sheldon Kopp (1972)

From Chapter 1 – Pilgrims and Disciples

The pilgrim, whether psychotherapy patient or earlier wayfarer, is at war with himself, in a struggle with his own nature. All of the truly important battles are waged within the self. It is as if we are all tempted to view ourselves as men on horseback. 9 The horse rep-resents a lusty animal-way of living, untrammeled by reason, unguided by purpose. The rider represents in-dependent, impartial thought, a sort of pure cold, intelligence. Too often the pilgrim lives as though his goal is to become the horseman who would break the horse’s spirit so that he can control him, so that he may ride safely and comfortably wherever he wishes to go. If he does not wish to struggle for discipline, it is because he believes that his only options will be either to live the lusty, undirected life of the riderless horse, or to tread the detached, unadventuresome way of the horseless rider. If neither of these, then he must be the rider struggling to gain control of his rebellious mount. He does not see that there will be no struggle, once he recognizes himself as a centaur.

If he ever achieves his true nature, gets beyond the point of struggle, he may wonder why the therapist-guru did not tell him at once the simple truths that would have made him free. But as a therapist, I know that though the patient learns, I do not teach. Furthermore, what is to be learned is too elusively simple to be grasped without struggle, surrender, and experiencing of how it is. As one Zen Master said to his now-enlightened pupil:

If I did not make you fight in every way possible in order to find the meaning [of Zen] and lead you finally to a state of non-fighting and of no-effort from which you can see with your own eyes, I am sure that you would lose every chance of discovering yourself.

This search for enlightenment, pursued in a secular context by today’s psychotherapy patient, has in the past been cast in religious terms. Whatever the metaphors in which the pilgrim experiences his quest, any trip involving a search for spiritual meaning is an allegorical journey through life, a journey that can renew and enrich the quality of the rest of the pilgrim’s daily living. The pilgrim, “strengthened by desire and hope, burdened with anxiety and fear, beset by temptations and guarded by spiritual powers, pursues his way along the Path of Life, seeking ever ‘a better country.”’

The early history of the pilgrimage is a variegated story of journeys made for reasons both sacred and profane to those holy places where a god resides, or where a prophet has appeared, or where a hero has been martyred. Pilgrimages were made by pagan Greeks and by the inhabitants of the ancient sites of other early Mediterranean civilizations, by Orientals, Egyptians, Jews, and Christians.

The primitive Aborigines of Australia also make ceremonial trips to holy places, places whose origin their myths describe: The two Djanggau Sisters came across the water.., traveling on the path of the rising sun from an island away to the northeast. They made the first people. They made the water holes and the sacred ritual sites.
At first the sisters possessed all the most secret sacred objects, the most sacred rites. Men had nothing. And so men stole them. But the sisters, said, “Oh, let them keep those things. Now men can do this work, looking after those things for everybody.”

And to this day, Aboriginal men still make pilgrim-ages to the sacred ritual sites to look after things.

In the Orient, pilgrimages have long been, and still are, common ways of fulfilling spiritual vows. Buddha himself has been called “the Great Pilgrim.” In Islam, Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah, proclaimed it the duty of every Muslim to visit Mecca at least once in his lifetime. As a result, Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, has become the centre of religious life of the Muslim world.

Christians, too, have long found it rewarding to make pilgrimages. From the close of the eleventh century on they undertook several great crusading expeditions. Taking up the Cross and forsaking their homes, thousands ventured out for the love of God, or for their own material gain. They made the far journey to the places in which the Saviour is said to have walked. Whatever their motives, they went in the company of other seekers; they found community with others as they ex-changed tales, made themselves known to one another, and examined the meaning of their lives.

Even before (as well as after) the Crusades, many were used to the familiar habit of journeying to the shrines of local saints. Some were sick and sought a cure. Others, now recovered, went to fulfill a vow of gratitude. Many went to expiate their sins, as a communal expression of penances. Some even went as a form of social protest, to honour a dissident hero. “To make a saint of a rebel was the most energetic means of protesting against the king.”

Whatever the initial motives, such a journey often gave the pilgrims new perspective on the meaning of their lives, made them “converts to better lives, [at least] for a time.” The metaphor of his journey is a bridge, and as the pilgrim crosses it, “a fiend clutches at him from behind; and Death awaits him at the farther end.” But there are companions and helpers along the way as well. One pilgrim may help another as when a blind man carries one who is lame upon his back, so that together they may make a pilgrimage that neither could make alone.

By acts of devotion, the crossing of this bridge may be undertaken. But the call to the difficult life of pilgrimage may be ignored or denied. Christ admonishes:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

And a journey may be a flight, rather than a search. James Joyce, the Irish expatriate, went to find his place in Paris, and spent the rest of his life in exile there, writing about life in Dublin, the home from which he had escaped. Someone once suggested that his God-term should have been a pier, rather than the bridge of pilgrimages, for a pier is a bridge that goes nowhere.

Search we must. Each man must set out to cross his bridge. The important thing is to begin. “A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath one’s feet.” But, remember, setting out does not by itself guarantee success. There is beginning, but there is also persevering, that is, beginning again and again and again. You are well advised to set out with a professional pilgrim as a guide. Such men of lifelong calling (or penance) are easily recognizable, “adorned with many tokens, the witness of many wonders, the hero of many adventures.”

And remember, too, you can stay at home, safe in the familiar illusion of certainty. Do not set out with-out realizing that “the way is not without danger. Everything good is costly, and the development of the personality is one of the most costly of all things.” It will cost you your innocence, your illusions, your certainty.

Sheldon Kopp – If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him (1972)

buddha on the road